An offensive line can make or break the success of a quarterback or a running back, or for that matter, an entire offense or even team. The unit assigned to protect its quarterback, create seams for running backs and stay healthy despite going head-to-head with players who oftentimes weigh as much as 300 pounds rarely gets the recognition it deserves, as a team’s line can be one of the most important parts of its success or failure. A dominant, healthy offensive line, like the one in Dallas, can manufacture a successful run game with virtually any quarterback. A consistent and reliable line, like the one Aaron Rodgers had in Green Bay prior to losing Josh Sitton, can help a quarterback stay healthy and give him the time he needs to make a play. A line which cannot stay healthy, like those of San Diego and Baltimore last year, will often cost its team several wins, regardless of the talent level of those around them. And in the AFC North, one of the most aggressive and physical divisions in football, the importance of an offensive line cannot be overstated. How do the lines stack up? Here’s our take.
1. Cincinnati Bengals: Andrew Whitworth, Clint Boling, Russell Bodine, Kevin Zeitler, Cedric Ogbuehi
It feels like blatant homerism to put the Bengals’ line at the top of the division, but there’s little to no arguing which line is best in the AFC North. Whitworth has continually defied age, while the interior of Cincinnati’s line, composed of three players who have proven to be durable and who are all entering their prime, has the makings of a dominant unit. And while I anticipate first-year starter Ogbuehi to struggle on the right side, I still don’t think he’s much of a downgrade — if a downgrade at alltt — from the departed Andre Smith. Tack on promising linemen Jake Fisher and Christian Westerman, as well as the fairly reliable Eric Winston, and it’s hard to argue the Bengals’ line isn’t one of the five best in the NFL.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers: Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert
Last offseason, the Steelers appeared to have the worst line in the entire division, but thanks to offseason losses to key players on both the Browns’ and Ravens’ offensive lines, Pittsburgh ranks second in the division. That Villanueva is manning the left tackle position should be fairly concerning to Steelers fans, but the continuity within the line and dominance on the right side, with DeCastro and Gilbert, should be highly encouraging. Whether Pouncey is able to stay healthy is a hard question to answer, but regardless, Pittsburgh’s line should continue to look good in 2016.
3. Cleveland Browns: Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Cam Erving, John Greco, Austin Pasztor
Thomas might not be the consensus top linemen in the NFL anymore, but he’s still one of the best, no questions asked. As evidenced by his 2014 dominance, Bitonio is more than capable of becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but he’ll need to be more consistent to eventually earn those honors. Erving was a huge weak link in the middle last season, but ultimately, the Browns finish ahead of the Ravens due to continuity and relative reliability, especially in terms of health. If Cleveland’s line can hold up, Robert Griffin III could have a solid chance of channeling his 2012 form once again.
4. Baltimore Ravens: Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis, Jeremy Zuttah, Marshal Yanda, Ricky Wagner
Baltimore has, in my opinion, the best offensive lineman in the division in Yanda, who might just be the best offensive lineman in the entire NFL. Before their offseason loss of Kelechi Osemele, the Ravens had an extremely reliable line. However, seeing as though two rookies will start in Baltimore, it’s hard to rank the Ravens any higher on the list, regardless of the rookies’ draft pedigree. Despite this, the AFC North has so many dominant offensive linemen, as well as quality offensive assistants, that it wouldn’t surprise me to see all four teams have lines graded in the top half of the NFL this year.